Bug pits to boutique hotels: take the New Silk Road to Uzbekistan

Calum MacLeod recommends his favourite Central Asian republic

The Bug Pit is still an option in Bukhara. A 6m-deep, vermin-infested hole, this infamous prison welcomed two British visitors in the 19th century, before they came to a grisly end at the hands of the ruthless emir. Or you might prefer the style and comfort of the Emir b&b, whose quiet courtyards give on to bedrooms rich in textiles, or the elegant Lyabi-House Hotel, a muezzin's call from the famous Lyab-i-Hauz pool, where "whitebeards" swap snuff and tall stories on the teabeds of Central Asia's most fabulous city.

The Bug Pit is still an option in Bukhara. A 6m-deep, vermin-infested hole, this infamous prison welcomed two British visitors in the 19th century, before they came to a grisly end at the hands of the ruthless emir. Or you might prefer the style and comfort of the Emir b&b, whose quiet courtyards give on to bedrooms rich in textiles, or the elegant Lyabi-House Hotel, a muezzin's call from the famous Lyab-i-Hauz pool, where "whitebeards" swap snuff and tall stories on the teabeds of Central Asia's most fabulous city.

Bound by sand and snow, fed by meltwater from the Roof of the World, Uzbekistan has always been the most alluring Stan. The oases of Bukhara and Samarkand host the beautiful legacy of Islam, and the graves of doomed players in the Anglo-Russian "Great Game". Yet recent headlines bring more disturbing news. The British ambassador crusades for thousands of religious prisoners rotting in modern-day Bug Pits, while last month suicide bombers struck in the capital Tashkent and Bukhara.

So why even consider visiting? Because Uzbekistan is not just safe but an exhilarating destination. Hibernation is over for this former crossroads of Asia, as new road, rail and air routes cross once forbidden frontiers. And families desperate to reconnect with the world are opening their doors to some of the most charming travel options along the Old Silk Road.

Bukhara the Holy, Muslim pilgrims called it for centuries - so holy that the light shone up from earth, not down from heaven. Bukhara the Boutique rings equally true today. Complete with their own travel agencies, private hotels such as Emir and Lyabi-House mean Central Asia has never been easier to enjoy. Akbar's wife will make you enjoy it. Mastura, or Joy, is our host as we tour the Akbar House, a gem of wooden pillars, alabaster designs and high ceilings. "It is the pride of Bukhara," she purrs. "Nobody has a property like this." Akbar is a genuine enthusiast set free by the fall of the Soviet Union. Their lovely dining hall houses an amazing range of artefacts - from the alms bowls of whirling dervishes to antique Korans that were once bricked up in walls to avoid Soviet censors.

Something else has emerged from hiding. "Who are you? A spy? Why do you want our address?" For me, all Soviet hotel receptionists have blended into one vision of badly dyed hair and barely disguised hostility. A decade ago I came to Uzbekistan to write its first guidebook, and grew to love and hate the state-run Intourist establishments, where high prices guaranteed neither plumbing nor even a smile. Thankfully, as I finish the fifth edition, the traditional warmth of Uzbek hospitality is back in business.

A feast of sightseeing also awaits. At the turn of the 19th century, Bukhara had a mosque for each day of the year, plus 127 madrasah, or Islamic colleges. To explore the many survivors, head up the narrow backstreets where Central Asia comes alive. Dogs bark, goats wander and boys play football in the dust. Stroll under the bubbling cupola of three domed bazaars, through arches high enough for camel caravans laden with silk, spices and news, to the Poi Kalon ensemble, or Pedestal of the Great.

Genghis Khan was dripping with slaughter in 1220 when the immense Kalon Minaret, lighthouse for the ships of the desert, stopped him in his tracks. As the steppe nomad strained his neck upwards, to a dimension unknown in Mongolia, his hat fell off. Kneeling to pick it up, legend records him quietly ordering the minaret spared.

You can climb the dusty citadel Afrosiab that Hollywood will recreate in Oliver Stone's Alexander epic due out this autumn. But fast forward to the local hero. Born with blood-filled palms, a deadly omen, Tamerlane was the last nomadic emperor to shake the world. On the outskirts of Delhi, he massacred 100,000 Hindu prisoners, lest they hamper his progress, before killing an equal number within the city. Condemned as a feudal despot in Soviet times, Tamerlane has been rehabilitated as a national symbol, riding on the 500 sum note (30p, good for a long taxi ride). The Taj Mahal is his best-known legacy, through his Mughal descendants, but Tamerlane's own capital offers equal treasures. Craftsmen and slave levy seized from India to Russia transformed Samarkand into the "Mirror of the World". His monumental buildings, all fluted domes and sky-blue mosaic, still dwarf Soviet efforts nearby.

If you tire of legends, rest at Hotel Malika, or the Légende de Samarcande b&b, the city's first response to Bukhara's boutique challenge. The French name reflects growing Gallic interest. Yet Brits should be here in equal numbers. Back in that Bug Pit, now restored as a museum, was Capt Arthur Connolly, who coined the phrase "the Great Game" for the war of stealth between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire, with India as the goal.

Throughout the 19th century, both sides excited readers with match reports from the exotic and perilous playing fields of Central Asia. The Russians ultimately won; we lost interest, and their Soviet successors carved up Turkestan into five new but subservient Stans. Uzbekistan is still dealing with the trauma of genuine statehood, after independence was thrust upon it in 1991. For a young nation with ancient roots, it has proved difficult to abandon Soviet methods. Yet an American airbase is the latest play in a flurry of international action marking the second leg of the Great Game.

And checking the score is easier than ever. Invitations are no longer required for tourist visas, while British Airways now connects London and Tashkent, where, as Our Man in Tashkent will attest, the nightlife grows ever more daring. Racy floorshows become freak shows - on my last trip, a man skewering his tongue and cheeks stopped the kebab en route to my own mouth. If you have the stomach for real adventure, local travel agencies offer heli-skiing by Soviet chopper, rafting in the Tian Shan, and camel trekking in the vast Red Sands desert.

Last month Kofi Annan announced a "new Silk Road", a UN-sponsored highway network "from Tokyo to Tehran, and from Singapore to Samarkand". Shelved during the Cold War, this will span 32 countries and 87,000 miles, but you don't have to clock that many to reach the highlight. Come to a land without McDonald's. For the Golden Road to Samarkand has never stretched this close.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Calum MacLeod flew to Uzbekistan with British Airways (0870 8509850; www.ba.com), which offers return fares from £530. Voyage Jules Verne (0845 1667000, www.vjv.co.uk) offers a seven-night escorted tour of Uzbekistan. There are regular departures in May, August, September and October with the next departure on 29 May. Prices for the itinerary start from £745 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from London, transfers, b&b, some meals and the services of a guide.

UK citizens are required to obtain a visa to enter the Republic of Uzbekistan. A single-entry 15-day visa costs £41 and a visa valid for one month costs £47. Contact the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan, 41 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 3RP (020-7229 7679; http://uzbekistan.embassy homepage.com).

Where to stay

Forget the Soviet blocks of Intourist hotels and leave your bathplug at home. Charming private hotels, cheap only in price, offer hospitality, tradition and Western bathrooms along the winding alleys of old Bukhara and Samarkand. Boutique in Uzbekistan hardly means New York or Marrakech chic, and some places can be a little ramshackle, but they are stamped with authenticity, and a few Soviet hangovers - like the need to keep registration chits for each night of your stay. Visit before all such kinks are ironed out.

Bukhara: Emir b&b, 17 Nadjab Husainov St (00 998 65 224 4965; www.emirtravel.com). Perhaps the pick of the bunch, this is the lovingly restored former home of a Jewish merchant, with beautiful rooms and clean bathrooms set around three quiet courtyards. From £18-£26 per room per night.

Lyabi-House Hotel, 7 Nadjab Husainov St (00 998 65 224 2484; www.lyabi-house.com). Close to Bukhara's famous hauz, or pool, this 19th-century house has been restored by local craftsmen. From £18-£30 per room per night.

Akbar House & Antiques, 22 Eshoni Pir (00 998 65 22 42 112; email: akbar_house_antiques@hotmail.ru). Pack a phrasebook - it's worth the effort to get to know the owners. There is a beautiful dining hall and a portico. From £10-£25 per room per night.

Amulet Hotel, 73 Nakhshbandi (00 998 65 224 5342; tashrif@bu.uzpak.uz). A designer madrasah, (Islamic college) offering cosy student cells. From £10-£15 per room per night.

Samarkand: Malika Samarkand, 37 Khamraeva St (00 998 66 233 0197) mauzo@rol.uz; www.malika.by.ru). A blend of traditional style and modern comforts. From £12-£25 per room per night.

Légende b&b, 60 Tolmasova St, (00 998 66 235 0543; legend_ guesthouse@ intal.uz). Stylish touches add to this 120-year-old house with balconies and shady teabeds. B&B from £12 per person.

Tashkent: Hotel Intercontinental Tashkent, 107A Amir Temur St (00 998 71 120 7000; www.ichotelsgroup.com). Five stars from just £50 per room per night.

How to get more information

Calum MacLeod and Bradley Mayhew's Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand, fifth edition is published by Odyssey Guides in July 2004 (£15.95).

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'